Smoking Math: Some Numbers Fiddling

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Today, I’d like to do a math problem.  Feel free to chime in with alterations, refinements, arguments, and opinions.

— As of 2010, there were 43,300,000 smokers in the US.
— 443,000 die each year due to smoking related illness (49,400 due to secondhand effects)
— In a given year, roughly 50% of smokers attempt to quit.
— Using approved smoking cessation methods, smokers have a 12% chance of successfully quitting.
— Quitting cold turkey (that is, at once, completely and without help) works 9% of the time.
— Every day, about 1000 kids under age 18 begin smoking on a daily basis.
*These numbers come primarily from the CDC and are as accurate as we can reasonably make them.

Let’s assume that these numbers continue as is and walk them forward a bit to see what happens.  So each year we will start with the total smokers left from the previous year.  Then we’ll subtract deaths (ignoring those that died due to secondhand effects).  Halfway between the success rate of quitting cold turkey and that of using cessation aids is 10.5%.  So we will remove 10.5% of the 50% that attempt to quit and succeeded.  Then we will add 365,000 (ignoring the extra thousand for leap years) for new daily smokers throughout the year.  We’re assuming that the 2010 number of total smokers was as of the beginning of the year.

This is in no way a terribly scientific or a statistically sound way of handling the numbers.  It’s entirely likely that growth in population size, trends, and more advanced statistical anomalies and principles will alter our nation’s future smoking rates.  Nevertheless, I’m inclined to believe that this can still be an illuminating exercise.

Here’s the trend as it falls.

As of 2012: 38,857,390 smokers in the US
As of 2013: 36,809,441
As of 2014: 34,869,010
As of 2015: 33,030,451
As of 2016: 31,288,416
As of 2017: 29,637,838
As of 2018: 28,073,916
As of 2019: 26,592,099
As of 2020: 25,188,078

So the trend looks good assuming these numbers hold out.  However, it’s worth recognizing that the death of smokers by the millions is contributing to this declining total. That’s more than 3.5 million between 2012 and 2020 (not including secondhand related deaths).  At this rate, the death of smokers per year outweighs those that quit by 2042–well within some of our lifetimes.

This also doesn’t account for individuals age 18 and older that begin smoking each year (we just couldn’t find it).  As well, at a recent presentation in London, CASAA’s science director said abstinence and quitting programs have yet to prove they can reduce smoking rates at the population level below 20%. This means no matter how far along these stats get, without reduced risk (i.e. smokeless) programs and advocacy, 1 in 5 people will always be smoking in the US.

Again, let’s stress that these numbers are nothing even resembling official or reliable.  They are merely a leaping point for conversation about the state of smoking in the US.

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